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Shad recovery inches forward


The total acreage of submerged grasses in the Chesapeake Bay is down. Blue crab populations may be dropping to cyclic lows, as bluefish already have.

But American shad -- with much help from state and federal governments, industry and individuals -- may be making a comeback of sorts.

The resurgence of shad has not reached the proportions of the recovery of rockfish, which in the past 10 years have re-established themselves in the bay and along the Atlantic Coast. Rather, shad are making slower progress.

According to the Department of Natural Resources, at the turn of the century the average annual harvest of shad was 17.5 million pounds. By the late 1970s, however, American shad were virtually nonexistent, and the causes were many.

Dams were built for flood control or to generate electricity for a rapidly expanding human population extending from lower western New York State to Baltimore to Washington, Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News.

Commercial fishing was almost unrestricted, and recreational anglers delighted in catching shad, full of roe and en route far up tidal rivers to spawn.

The dams, built without regard for what might move upstream rather than down, curtailed the spawning runs -- especially on the Susquehanna River, up which American shad had traveled for centuries to spawn in waters as far north as New York State.

With spawning grounds of the Susquehanna and other regional rivers limited to those areas below the dams, shad reproduction fell. As fishing pressure by recreational and commercial interests continued, the fish began to disappear.

But in 1980, Maryland declared a moratorium on shad fishing, a ban that is still in existence.

But this year there again is hope for the future of the American shad, which DNR biologists estimate number 250,000 or more in the Upper Chesapeake Bay. Last year the estimate for the same area was 129,000.

Large numbers of hickory shad and river herring, which also move upriver to spawn, also have been noted by biologists. According to DNR, the number of hickory shad is greater than at any time since the late 1960s.

Shad are recovering because of a cooperative effort among DNR, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, the PECO energy company, Pennsylvania Power and Light Co., BGE and Metropolitan Edison.

PECO, which operates the Conowingo Dam hydroelectric facility the Susquehanna, has operated a shad lift at the dam since 1991 and trucks shad collected there upriver to Harrisburg before releasing them to complete their spawning runs. This year the PECO operation transported and released almost twice as many shad as last year.

Farther up the Susquehanna, at Holtwood and Safe Harbor, two more shad lifts are under construction and, when they are NTC completed, 200 more miles of spawning habitat will be opened.

Maryland has initiated a shad recovery program in the Nanticoke and Patuxent rivers, pioneering a procedure in which shad captured unharmed in the bay are spawned and released. The eggs are hatched at the Manning Hatchery near Waldorf before being released.

Nearly 3 million shad young have been released this year.

With rockfish, the fish recovery story of the century in Maryland, hatching and stocking striped bass fingerlings played a considerable part in the rebuilding of the species, with millions of released hatchery fish complementing the wild population.

If the hatch-and-release program for shad works as well as the hatchery program for rockfish did, the long-term future of American shad may be bright, indeed.

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